State diversity fair brings reflection and fun
Event helps government highlight strides toward increasing minorities in work forceBRAD SHANNON THE OLYMPIAN
OLYMPIA -- First a jazz band beckoned. Later, a drum pounded as tribal singers enacted a potlatch dance at one end of the parking lot.
The smells of barbecued ribs wafted from a soul food booth.
Organizers of state government's third annual diversity fair made a point of showing Thursday that celebrating diversity can be fun as well as healthy for the workplace.
"Actually, the smells perked my interest," said Department of Natural Resources budget analyst Marcia Wendling, who took a stroll between the nearly 40 booths and displays with her sister, Robin Hammill. She called it "a gorgeous day."
The fair, staged in the parking lot next to the Natural Resources Building, drew a few hundred people to sample food. It raised hopes that state government's work force can remain, or become even more, diverse.
"For Olympia, I think it's pretty diverse," commented Aziz Aladin, a revenue officer for the Department of Labor and Industries who described his ancestry as Pakistani. "It could be more diverse, that's for sure."
Yet he feels comfortable in his work environment, Aladin said.
The Governor's Affirmative Action Policy Committee earlier this year reported that state government as a whole has maintained its overall diversity in the workplace over the past five years, despite voter passage of Initiative 200 in 1998, which did away with affirmative action as a hiring strategy.
In fact, employment of racial minorities in the general- government work force rose to 17.4 percent in 2003, close to the 17.9 percent of the state's population who are people of color. On the other hand, some minorities lost ground, including Vietnam veterans and people with disabilities, and agencies varied widely with their overall minority representation.
The Employment Security Department had the highest share of minority employees at 30.5 percent, followed by Financial Institutions at 30.3 percent.
Licensing, which sponsored this year's diversity fair, was highest among moderately large agencies at 21.9 percent. Natural Resources and other resource-based agencies like parks were the least diverse.
The report also found that despite appointments of minority personnel to agency leadership positions by Gov. Gary Locke, some agencies were not making improvements.
"Change is very slow," said Eleanor Lymus, who works for the Attorney General's Office, which has 11.5 percent minority representation in the work force. "There's some representation but it would be nice to see more."
Lymus, who is black, worked at a booth that featured displays of an African-American painting, clothing from Japan, Cambodia and Malaysia, Indian cloth and photographs of heritage sites in Europe.
Dariush Khaleghi, a strategic planning manager for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said his agency has a "culture and attitude" that's very welcoming to minorities. As a member of the Bahai faith and veteran of the Iranian army who served in the Iran-Iraq war, he said it is "unheard of" that he could contribute as he has in such an agency.
His booth offered materials to explain programs for veterans, including the homeless. A tablecloth with a U.S. flag motif added color.
"I haven't felt uncomfortable ever, even in the private sector," said Khaleghi, who has worked for Intel and served as interim director of the state Human Rights Commission.
But he did tell of a humorous incident when he told a veteran at Fort Lewis that he'd served in the Iran-Iraq war. Khaleghi said the man asked, "Which side were you on?"
The diversity event grows each year, said fair coordinator Dee Scharf of the Department of Licensing.
"What barbecue doesn't bring people?" she asked with a smile.
This year's fair featured close to 40 exhibits from more than 30 organizations, including more than a dozen state agencies. These included Licensing, Social and Health Services, Health, Attorney General, State Patrol, Natural Resources, Employment Security and Corrections.
Among event speakers, Kathy Mix of the Attorney General's Office said her agency has worked with lawyer groups to encourage more diversity in the legal profession, as well as promote diversity in-house.
Licensing director Fred Stephens said diversity rivals motherhood and children in importance. The fair shows workers' commitment to diversity, he said.
"I think state government has done very well" improving diversity, Stephens said in an interview. "We can always do better."
Stephens credited Locke with making diversity a priority. But a key is having a diverse pools of applicants rather than setting hiring goals, Stephens said.
"We have to recruit well and make certain people are applying for these jobs."
Brad Shannon is political editor for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-753-1688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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